Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong continue sorting through their archives of punk-era concert footage as it’s digitized for the Downtown Collection at N.Y.U.’s Fales Library. Today, they look back on the N.Y.C. debut of the Dead Kennedys.
For die-hard NYC punks, the West Coast seemed a little daunting. It was so bright! But in the fall of 1979, we went to Los Angeles to be on a panel at an early MTV music video conference. We stayed at the Tropicana Hotel, which was the preferred accommodation for traveling rockers. Jim Morrison and Tom Waits had lived there – on this trip, it was Nina Hagen and The Slits hanging at the pool.
After L.A., we headed up to San Francisco to do a Nightclubbing video screening at the Mabuhay Gardens. The club was right in the middle of San Francisco’s red-light district, and our hotel, the Sam Wong, was across the street from Carol Doda’s strip club. The only people who stayed at the Sam Wong were old Chinese men and punk rockers. We paid $21 for a threadbare room that overlooked Carol’s flashing neon breasts.
The next night, we caught The Offs and The Nuns at the club, and stayed up all night to catch a 6 a.m. flight home. At airport security, we met the Dead Kennedys as they headed east for their first N.Y.C. show. Airport security was nothing like it is today, but they did have a metal detector and they weren’t letting lead singer Jello Biafra off easy. He drew a crowd as he emptied his chains, rings, studded belt, boots, dog collar, and other metal into a plastic bin. We had found some new friends.
Bonding on the flight home, we agreed to videotape them that weekend at Hurrah’s. Sadly, the show was poorly promoted and sparsely attended, a disappointment for a band that was considered the biggest thing in San Francisco.
Add to that, their hotel accommodations were so bad that Jello moved onto one of our couches for the duration of his stay. We took him in because he seemed so young (barely 20), he stirred our maternal instincts. We wanted him to have good memories of the East Coast.
If nothing else, Jello’s encounter with Donna Death was memorable. She was a local scene-maker who played Scumbalina in Nick Zedd’s film “Geek Maggot Bingo” and who proved once again that N.Y.C. girls are not to be messed with. Look for her at the 2:45 mark in today’s clip.
“Holiday In Cambodia” is political, as was so much of the Dead Kennedys’ music. Songs like “California Uber Alles,” their ode to Gov. Jerry Brown, called out the established order. East Coast bands were famously apolitical. Cranky, yes. Existential, yes. But overtly political, no. West Coast bands were more like U.K. bands, in that they had a political ax to grind. It was kind of refreshing.
Jello is now a spoken word artist and still a provocateur. A leading figure of the Green Party, he finished second to Ralph Nader as their presidential nominee in 2000. He shows no signs of slowing down. They probably still stop him at airport security.
This story originally appeared on The Local East Village.